How Collaborative People Should Handle Adversarial People

When I was in sixth grade, I got to go on a tour of the San Francisco public defender’s office and meet the head attorney, Geoff Brown.

Some other kid in the group asked Brown what he did when he thought his client was guilty.

Brown’s answer surprised all of our child-like senses of morality:

“I try my best to get them off. That’s my job.”

Can you imagine a group of earnest middle-schoolers all having their head explode at the same time. “How can you defend a guilty person?”

Brown’s explanation is that the legal system is set up to be adversarial. He had to vigorously defend his client to balance out the prosecutor who was going to vigorously prosecute the client.

The fair outcome would be in the middle. And if he wasn’t vigorous in defense, then the outcome would be unfairly harsh.


I had the good fortune of seeing the Hollywood Super Agent, Ari Emanuel speak at a Web 2.0 Summit back when the Web was a thing.

You might know Ari as Chicago Mayor, Rahm’s, brother. But more likely, you’ve run across him through the show Entourage. The Ari character there is based on the real Ari.

In person — the Entourage caricature makes a lot of sense. Ari is brash and aggressive.

The bring-the-house-down moment came when someone asked Ari what it meant to have a fair negotiation. Here is his response:

“Fair is where you end up.”

Damn, that’s simple, right? No subtle ethics or morality debates. Just cold-blooded negotiation.

The adversarial style has many disadvantages, though. For one thing, if a discussion is framed as a battle, it creates opponents of people who perhaps should be on the same side. ~ Eric Nehrlich

Most of us aren’t in battles. We’re working out conflict with people we’re on the same side with.

For example, you may be in a romantic relationship.

Or, you may work for a company.

I probably go months without running into an adversarial system. Instead, almost all of my time is spent in collaborative systems.

At work we might disagree about what direction to go — but we share the same goals.

So, like you, I get surprised whenever I find myself in an adversarial situation. That’s normal. And healthy. And probably a sign that you’re a good person. Take pride in your collaborative ability.

But, if you have to get through an adversarial system, here’s how:

#1. Acceptance

When you go buy a car, the car salesman is there to negotiate hard with you. They don’t care about honesty. They will throw every persuasive trick at you.

That’s an adversarial system. Most car buyers know that before they show up on the car lot.

The tricky situations are when a collaborative relationship briefly turns adversarial.

Everyone experiences this during job interviews. During the interview process, you’re under pressure but there are a lot of collaborative moments as both sides try to figure out if they’ll like each other.

Then the salary negotiation happens. And the relationship turns momentarily tense. The boss will lowball you and will behave as if you being paid less than your harder-negotiating peers is perfectly fair.

Then, if you accept the job offer, you’ll go back to having a collaborative relationship with everyone.

That salary negotiation situation is tricky for most people to handle because mostly work is about relationships. But adversarial negotiations are not.

A kind hearted person will negotiate by saying how committed they are to working at the company. But what you really need to do is say that you have a competing offer.

Trying to collaborate through an adversarial system is a recipe for success. So, step one is always just to recognize that you’re in a different system.

#2. Adversarial does not mean evil

I mean, it could.

But it doesn’t have to. It just means selfish.

I’m in a pleasant negotiation right now for a mortgage. I think we have a pretty good offer. But if I find a better offer, then I’m going to walk. That’s selfish.

#3. Get a better offer

I’ve mentioned it twice already. This is how nice people do hard negotiation.

The cold logic of “I have a better offer, can you beat it?” works for people with morals.

There’s an entire world of tricky negotiating tactics, signaling, bluster, negging and even lying.

But all of these pail in comparison to simply having a better offer.

And most importantly, stay friendly. This has a twofold benefit. You’ll be able to switch back to collaboration more easily. And, you send a signal of strength to the other side.

Source: Originally appeared in Better Humans

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